Simon Bridges - Speech on New Zealand economy
Simon Bridges - Leader of the Opposition
30 April 2018
Thank you for having me here.
One of the privileges of being a politician is that you get to meet people all over New Zealand from all walks of life.
A couple of weeks ago I went back to my old high school – Rutherford College in Te Atatu.
Yes I’m a born and bred Westie, something Paula Bennett will never let me forget.
Although I now live in Tauranga and I drive a hybrid rather than a Holden.
At Rutherford College I had the chance to talk with a group of amazing 16 and 17 year olds.
While some of them were a bit nervous about moving out into the workplace or further study, they all saw their futures being full of endless opportunity.
And they were right.
Those teenagers will have opportunities in their lives that we can’t even imagine today.
Right now, New Zealand is filled with fantastic opportunities. We live in a successful, prosperous, confident country that can take on the world and succeed.
As Leader of the Opposition I think there’s a view that I’m supposed to be grouchy and complain about things.
That’s just not my style. I’m energised by this role.
I genuinely believe we live in the best country in the world.
It wasn’t always the case – ten years ago 30,000 people were leaving New Zealand every year to move to Australia, because that’s where the opportunities were.
Now there’s more coming the other way.
We’ve made great progress recently - but we must make the most of it to ensure all Kiwis can share in the gains.
Today I want to talk to you about the economy. What the Government should be doing to support businesses like yours to create jobs and grow incomes.
But before that, I want to tell you a bit about me.
At the next election I’ll be asking for your vote to become Prime Minister.
My team and I have two and a half years to prove that we have the best ideas for New Zealand’s future, with positive, exciting plans that capture your attention.
I’ll be asking for your vote, so you have the right to know who I am. You deserve to know what drives me, and what I stand for.
I’ve got a mixed background. Mum is Pakeha and Dad is Māori.
We weren’t well off, but we never went without.
Dad was a Baptist minister, so growing up it was the norm to get involved and support the local community.
I was a bit of a swot at school, but I probably talked too much – which you won’t be surprised to hear from a politician.
I loved debating and so ended up studying law – first in Auckland, and then at Oxford University in England.
When I came back to New Zealand I became a Crown prosecutor in Mount Maunganui.
I prosecuted hundreds of men and women, some of whom had done the worst things one person can do to another.
Assaults, rapes and murders.
Many days I was depressed by the dark side of human behaviour.
But other times I was inspired by the resilience of victims, and by previous offenders who were putting their lives back together.
That background is why one of my priorities is law and order.
I don’t apologise for that.
It bothers me that the Government is planning to slash the prison population by a third, without explaining how it will lower the crime rate first.
The only way it can do that quickly is to make it harder to send someone to prison.
In fact, Kelvin Davis says they’re looking at relaxing bail and sentencing laws for serious and violent criminals, and increasing the threshold for Police to prosecute.
I know from experience that as things stand only the most serious offenders get sent to prison – and the Government wants to raise the bar further.
It should be looking at rehabilitation and crime prevention, not just making it easier to get out of jail.
I believe in most people getting another chance to turn their lives around, and doing whatever we can to help them move away from a life of desperation and crime.
But I also believe that the worst offenders should be locked up.
In 2008 I wasn’t satisfied just enforcing the law, I wanted to help set it.
So I stood to be a Member of Parliament.
I ran in Tauranga against some guy who first became an MP 29 years earlier, when I was just two years old.
After I won I thought he might retire, but ten years later he’s our Deputy Prime Minister.
I became a Minister in 2012, and held portfolios focusing on the economy, infrastructure, transport, broadband and the Government’s finances.
So that gives you a quick overview of how I got here.
But to give you the full sense of what drives me I really need to tell you about my wife Natalie and our three young children. Emlyn who’s six, Harry who’s four, and little Jemima who’s a whole five months old.
Like any dad, I’m incredibly proud of my kids.
I’ve got a lot of photos of them on my phone that I’d love to show you after the speech, if you want to see.
As a politician sometimes there are sacrifices you make, and unfortunately that includes spending more time than I’d like away from my children.
But it also means that when I go to work in Parliament, I’m driven by the desire to make New Zealand an even better place for my children and yours when they grow up.
I’m ambitious for New Zealand, and New Zealanders.
We live in a great country, but we need to continue to create even more opportunities for the future.
And that’s why I want to talk about the economy today.
Now sometimes people can think the economy equals boring, or that we’re focused on balance sheets rather than people.
But when I talk about the economy, I’m talking about jobs for our children.
About wages for our families.
About the local sparky as much as the big corporation in the CBD.
About the opportunities we can give those kids from Rutherford College to move into work and follow their passion.
All of this flows from the economy.
But those opportunities aren’t created by accident.
They’re built on the hard work of people who get up early in the morning to go to work, or who stay up late the night before to make the school lunches.
They’re built on the entrepreneurs who take a risk and hire their first staff member, or their hundredth, and the workers who produce world-class exports.
They’re built on a nation of innovative, passionate Kiwis who back themselves to succeed - the farmers just out of town, the butchers down the road, and scientists and teachers and IT whizzes.
There is, however, one group of people who don’t directly create those jobs – and that’s politicians.
Of course we have some part to play. Our role should be to get the settings right and then get out of the way - making good, consistent, sensible policy choices that give businesses the confidence to do business.
That’s one area where I have a major difference of opinion with the Ardern-Peters Government.
Labour and NZ First are more focused on government intervention. They believe they know how to run your businesses better than you do.
Shane Jones’ $1 billion Provincial Growth Fund is a good example. It’s terrible policy.
Now I’m sure there are some worthy projects that will get funded. But it will shift businesses from focusing on becoming more productive to chasing a subsidy from Matua Shane.
That’s not how to drive long-term productivity improvements.
When I was Economic Development Minister, our plan for the economy was set out in the Business Growth Agenda.
The BGA comprised over 500 different initiatives all designed to make it easier to do business by investing in infrastructure, removing red tape, and helping Kiwis develop the skills needed in a modern economy.
Some of those were big, some were small. I’ll admit some weren’t as exciting spending a billion dollars every year.
But together they were effective.
New Zealand has one of the best performing economies in the developed world.
Over 2.6 million New Zealanders are now in work – and that’s grown by almost 240,000 in the last two years.
That means that throughout 2016 and 2017 10,000 new jobs were created a month.
In fact the proportion of New Zealanders in work is the third highest in the developed world.
And the average annual wage is growing much faster than inflation – up $13,000 since 2008.
That is what a successful economy looks like.
But we need to keep it going to ensure all New Zealanders can continue to share in the gains.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the Ardern-Peters Government doesn’t have a clear plan to do this.
They’ve announced 80 working groups or reviews already – because they didn’t do the work in opposition to come up with solutions.
And when they do make decisions, they make bad ones.
They’re implementing a series of policies that will slow New Zealand down rather than speed us up.
Whether it’s industrial law where they are strengthening their union colleagues or adding compliance on hard working businesses that will cost jobs rather than benefit workers.
Whether it’s transport, with fewer new roads and higher taxes – and you here in Auckland you’re getting a double-whammy with excise tax going up and a regional fuel tax on top.
Whether it’s immigration, where there are such mixed messages from the Government that employers don’t have the confidence they’ll be able to get the skilled workers they need.
Whether it’s the Tax Working Group, which I’m telling you now will lead to capital gains tax legislation before the next election.
And whether it’s the decision to shut down oil and gas exploration.
Each of these policies on their own are bad. Together, they are shutting down opportunities for those students at Rutherford College, rather than creating them.
Just on the oil and gas decision, the Government was quick to claim there would be no job losses.
Their confidence was somewhat undermined by making the announcement to students in Wellington, rather than fronting up in Taranaki and talking to the thousands of people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on the industry.
On that day I happened to be in New Plymouth at a company called Fitzroy Engineering, which employs around 400 people.
Within hours the CEO had said there would be no more investment and no more hiring.
He knows the impact on his business better than the politicians in Wellington.
The really tragic thing is that the main reason for the ban doesn’t even stack up. The environmental effects will be perverse.
Gas will dry up over the next decade, and industries that depend on it will be forced to switch to coal, which has much higher emissions.
What matters for the environment is not how much oil and gas we produce, but how much we consume. The only people that benefit from this policy are big oil producers overseas.
This is a government that is big on intentions, but small on plans and delivery.
It is one thing to do something because it makes a nice headline, but the reality is the impact on the thousands of people who have their jobs taken away will last a lifetime.
That’s why National is clear that we will reverse the decision to stop oil and gas exploration.
We will work on addressing environmental issues, but we will do it with purpose and a plan.
Because National’s approach is different.
I value enterprise, hard work and the rewards that go with success.
I believe in sensible, consistent economic policies that encourage businesses to grow, because that is how opportunities are created.
I believe in responsible management of the Government’s books. If we can avoid wasteful spending like the $2.8 billion spent on a year’s free tertiary education then we can invest more in world-class health and education services, and deliver better infrastructure.
I believe New Zealanders should be able to keep more of what they earn.
And that is the final thing I want to talk to you about today, the regional fuel tax.
I know that is important to you here in Auckland. And we know that more Aucklanders oppose it than support it.
The tax is not needed, the enforcement is complicated, and it will hit you in the back-pocket.
A typical Auckland family will have to pay around $700 extra a year as a result of the fuel taxes the Government has announced.
Under National, we were able to live within our means while still investing in major projects such as the Waterview tunnel, rail electrification and the Western Ring Route.
We were relentlessly focused on infrastructure. In the most recent Budget we had set aside a record $32.5 billion over the next four years for infrastructure investment.
The Government and Auckland Council should be applying more discipline to their own finances in order to properly fund core services such as transport.
And it isn’t just in Auckland – the legislation allows for a regional fuel tax to be rolled out in other areas around the country too. Already Christchurch is saying it wants it.
Well, my commitment is that we will repeal the regional fuel tax legislation.
A National government under me will invest heavily in transport – as a former Transport Minister I know how important it is, and how frustrating it can be when the system doesn’t work – but we won’t be using a regional fuel tax to do so.
If we manage the books right, we don’t need it.
Ladies and gentlemen.
New Zealand is a great country. And if we maintain our direction and momentum of recent years we can make it even better for our kids.
Moving into opposition is a chance for National to look at our position on certain issues, and understand the things that New Zealanders want us to focus on.
Although the one thing I hope you’ll take from my speech is we won’t be changing our focus on the economy.
Over the next two months I’ll be travelling around the country, going on a roadshow to connect with our communities and talk to as many New Zealanders from as many walks of life as possible.
I want us to be better at listening, so that we can understand what is important to you.
Our country is filled to the brim with opportunities – we just need to make the most of them.